pizarro and the incas -- 9/28/21

Today's selection -- from River of Darkness by Buddy Levy. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas and became one of the wealthiest men in the world:

"Arrive they did. By early November 1532, Francisco Pizarro, his brothers, and his small army became the first assemblage of Europeans to ascend the Andes, climbing a well-maintained roadway to the cold plain of Cajamarca at 9,000 feet above sea level. They were on the Royal Inca Road, the two-thousand-mile network of stone paving connecting the entire Inca Empire, from Carnqui north of Quito all the way to Copiapo on the coast of what is today Chile. Hernando Pizarro had been impressed enough to utter that 'such magnificent roads could be found nowhere in Christendom.' 

"On November 16, 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his 167  'Men of Cajamarca' brazenly confronted the emperor-elect of the Incas, Atahualpa, persuading him to attend a friendly meeting with the Spaniards in the Cajamarca central square. There the Spanish infantry and cavalry lay in wait, hidden inside the empty town buildings. They knew that Atahualpa's army was enormous, with estimates of as many as eighty thousand warriors. Some of the Spaniards were so unnerved that they 'made water [urinated] ... out of sheer terror.' Soon Atahualpa arrived with all the ceremony attendant on an emperor: borne on a feather-­bedecked and gilded litter; preceded by attendants wearing ornate head­dresses, 'large gold and silver disks like crowns on their heads,' who swept the ground before him; and followed by nearly six thousand troops armed only with ceremonial weaponry. At length, a Spanish Dominican friar, using an interpreter and accompanied by young Gonzalo Pizarro, spoke with Atahualpa in a historic exchange.

Portrait of Francisco Pizarro by Amable-Paul Coutan, 1835

"Atahualpa, confident in his superior numbers and seeing so few of the foreigners before him, demanded that the Spaniards return every item they had stolen since their arrival in his realm. The friar, holding a dog-eared breviary in one hand and a cross in the other, responded by delivering -- as Spanish law required him to do -- the famous and insidi­ous requerimiento, a self-justifying speech that called on native popula­tions to accept Christ in lieu of their own gods and the Spanish king as their sovereign. Atahualpa listened, but certainly neither comprehended nor much cared about the demands these interlopers were making on someone of his prestige and power. He asked to see the breviary, leafed through it, then angrily and disdainfully tossed it to the ground. The act, interpreted by the Spaniards as a desecration of Holy Writ, was enough to incite an attack, and out flew Pizarro's soldiers from their hiding places.

"The spectacle was overwhelming to the Incas, for here came men clad in iron chain mail and shining armor, mounted on giant four-legged animals they had never seen, firing harquebuses and cannons into the ranks of unarmed Inca troops. Explosions of smoke and fire terrified the crowd and soon the Spanish cavalry stampeded into the masses, slash­ing their Toledo blades with impunity and continuing to fire guns and crossbows at close range. The sounds of the explosions, the percussive bursts of smoke and flame, all were utterly foreign to the Incas, many of whom cowered on the ground or fled in terror. In just two devastating hours, Francisco Pizarro and his men had slashed and stabbed and speared and trampled their way to Atahualpa's litter, still borne by his loyal and courageous attendants. Pizarro himself, bloodied, one hand severely wounded, wrested the Inca emperor from his noble elite and carted him away as a prisoner. As the sun set over Cajamarca that night, nearly seven thousand Incas lay slain or dying, and the balance of power in Peru now lay in the hands of Francisco Pizarro.

"Atahualpa, proud ruler of some ten million tribute-paying subjects, was shocked and devastated by his defeat and capture. Not long into his incarceration he began attempting to negotiate terms for his release. He had noticed the invaders' fascination with objects of gold and silver. Anything made of these metals -- which were much less valuable to the Incas than to the Spaniards -- mesmerized Pizarro and his men. Gold was sacred to the Incas, but it was not used as a monetary currency. Atahualpa determined that his best chance to secure his own freedom and the withdrawal of the Spaniards would be to strike a bargain. He told Pizarro that in exchange for his life and freedom, he would give him as much gold and silver as he wanted -- the equivalent of a ransom. The offer obviously piqued Pizarro's interest. Really? How much, and how soon, he wondered.

"Atahualpa said that he would give a room full of gold that measured twenty-two feet long by seventeen feet wide, filled to a white line half way up its height, which, from what he said, would be over eight feet high. He [also] said that he would fill the room to this height with various pieces of gold-jars, pots, plates, and other objects and that he would fill that entire hut twice with sil­ver, and that he would do all this within twelve months.

"Pizarro immediately agreed to the terms, though he certainly had no intention of honoring his end of the bargain. Pizarro inquired where Atahualpa might get all this treasure, and he was enthralled to learn that Atahualpa's realm stretched a tremendous distance to the south, so far that relay runners racing night and day would take about forty days on foot to reach the end of the empire and return. The empire stretched for thousands of miles, from the top of the continent south to what is modern-day Santiago, Chile. Though he could not have known it at the time, Francisco Pizarro had indeed found a literal and figurative gold mine. He and his brothers were now in control of the greatest empire on the face of the earth. Atahualpa honored his part of the arrangement, and gold and silver streamed into Cajamarca from all corners of the Inca Empire. Inca guides and bearers were dispatched under Spanish guard and supervi­sion to oversee the taking of plunder at military and civic outposts far and wide, and Hernando Pizarro went on a three-month reconnaissance expedition to learn more about these people and their vast network of roads and military complexes.

"Between December 1532 and May 1533, great llama trains bearing fin­ery and antiquities flowed into Cajamarca: gold and silver vessels, jars and pitchers, ornate jewelry, unique sculptures, until as promised the rooms were indeed filling toward the ceilings. Eventually Francisco Pizarro had nine special furnaces built and used Indian smiths to melt these gorgeous masterpieces down so that they could be molded into ingots, officially stamped as legal and weighed, and the Royal Fifth sequestered for the king in Spain. The initial haul was so immense that the smiths were frequently melting down six hundred pounds of gold per day." 

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Buddy Levy


River of Darkness




Copyright 2011 by Buddy Levy


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